John Martin's Book: An Almost Forgotten Children's Magazine
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John Martin's Book:
An Almost Forgotten Children's Magazine

A few thousand older Americans from middle and upper income families have fond memories of a monthly magazine to which their parents subscribed when they were very young. It was called John Martin's Book. You'll not find it mentioned in any history of children's literature, although five pages are devoted to it in Children's Periodicals in the United States, a valuable reference edited by R. Gordon Kelly (Greenwood, 1984). Even oldsters who read it sixty years ago, or had it read to them, can tell you nothing about John Martin or the history of his remarkable periodical, yet in its time it was the most entertaining magazine published in this country for boys and girls aged five to eight. In many ways it was a pioneering publication.

There have been more than four hundred periodicals in the United States for young people of varying ages. The first, Children's Magazine, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1789 and died three issues later. By far the most influential was St. Nicholas, founded in 1873 by Mary Mapes Dodge, who is best known for her novel Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates.1 The only child's magazine of comparable literary quality in the United States today is Cricket. A glance through any issue of St. Nicholas from its golden years shows that it was intended for readers older than eight. After 1900 it even began to run articles for parents, including interviews with [End Page 145] William Gladstone, Thomas Hardy, William Dean Howells, Henry Ward Beecher, and other notables who had nothing to do with children's literature. After Miss Dodge's death in 1905, St. Nicholas fell to a succession of owners and editors before it expired in 1943 as a picture magazine sold in five-and-dime stores. During the first two decades of this century, older children could still obtain the famous Youth's Companion. American Boy and Boy's Life were also available for older boys, but there simply was no magazine of quality for very small children. Even the monthly Child Life appealed to youngsters over the age of eight.

It was into this vacuum that John Martins Book (hereafter JMB) entered in 1913. The key to this magazine's success was the unfeigned delight taken by its publisher and editor, and by his associate George Carlson, artist and puzzle-maker, in the child's intellect and imagination. They deemed the ability to "play" with one's mind worthy of adult respect. In 1921 (I was seven and a subscriber) I wrote to Martin for his autograph. He responded with typical zest by saying he would rather send it to me than to a king. More than thirty years later, when I was a contributing editor for eight years to Humpty Dumpty's Magazine, my main task was inventing what I called "gimmick pages"—activity features that involved cutting, folding, writing on, and otherwise damaging pages. For each issue I also wrote a short story, designed to be read aloud by an adult, about the adventures of Humpty Dumpty Junior. Junior, a small egg, was the son of the magazine's supposed editor, Humpty himself. I also wrote for each issue a poem of moral advice spoken by Humpty Senior to his son.2 Memories of JMB were my inspiration for the activity features I created. I took up, so to speak, where Carlson left off. Years later, when I began collecting issues of JMB (many of which I had not seen as a child), I was amazed by how many of my ideas Carlson had anticipated. I became increasingly curious about both Martin and Carlson, a pair who had so early addressed themselves to the imaginative needs of very young children and had brought some of the best free-lance writers and artists of the day into the venture with them.

John Martin, I discovered to my surprise, was a pseudonym. His real name was Morgan von Roorbach Shepard. What little is known about his life comes entirely from two sources: an interview with Allan Harding in American...